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Realism in the philosophy of mathematics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Y066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

Article Summary

Mathematical realism is the view that the truths of mathematics are objective, which is to say that they are true independently of any human activities, beliefs or capacities. As the realist sees it, mathematics is the study of a body of necessary and unchanging facts, which it is the mathematician’s task to discover, not to create. These form the subject matter of mathematical discourse: a mathematical statement is true just in case it accurately describes the mathematical facts.

An important form of mathematical realism is mathematical Platonism, the view that mathematics is about a collection of independently existing mathematical objects. Platonism is to be distinguished from the more general thesis of realism, since the objectivity of mathematical truth does not, at least not obviously, require the existence of distinctively mathematical objects.

Realism is in a fairly clear sense the ‘natural’ position in the philosophy of mathematics, since ordinary mathematical statements make no explicit reference to human activities, beliefs or capacities. Because of the naturalness of mathematical realism, reasons for embracing antirealism typically stem from perceived problems with realism. These potential problems concern our knowledge of mathematical truth, and the connection between mathematical truth and practice. The antirealist argues that the kinds of objective facts posited by the realist would be inaccessible to us, and would bear no clear relation to the procedures we have for determining the truth of mathematical statements. If this is right, then realism implies that mathematical knowledge is inexplicable. The challenge to the realist is to show that the objectivity of mathematical facts does not conflict with our knowledge of them, and to show in particular how our ordinary proof-procedures can inform us about these facts.

Citing this article:
Blanchette, Patricia A.. Realism in the philosophy of mathematics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Y066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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